Ain't you lot got homes to go to?

When the going gets tough, build your own pub


There are days when having a fully equipped pub in his garage is a cruel temptation to Mark Coates, an ICT teacher currently working from home in Sunderland.

“I’m on a tiny laptop screen trying to teach hundreds of students and it gets a bit frustrating because their devices aren’t working at times and my device stops working at times,” he says. “And so you think, ‘Could I nip in?’”

He’s joking of course. Mark doesn’t even really drink during the week, being strict with himself about keeping The Royal Sovereign, which he built with his son Daniel, mainly for weekends. But it’s tempting none the less. 

Mark and Daniel originally built their garage pub, an age of piracy-themed boozer named after a 17th-century warship, so as to be able to indulge Mark’s father’s pub-going habit as he became less mobile. Before the pandemic hit, Mark would drive over and pick 87-year-old George up every Saturday evening. They’d make a night of it at The Royal Sovereign, often inviting other friends over too, before entrusting the friendly cabbies from the local taxi rank to see him safely home. 

“It’s exactly how we envisaged it,” he says.

Mark is missing the sociable side of those evenings but the pub certainly isn’t sitting empty. “You go in there if you’ve got any quiet work to do, it’s a lovely calming situation,” he says. 

The Royal Sovereign is quite an elaborate setup, a space that, from pictures at least, does a very convincing impression of an actual, albeit miniature, public house. But, with the UK back in lockdown again, even a much more modest arrangement would be a boon at this stage, according to Mark. 

THE ROYAL SOVEREIGN: Mark and Daniel Coates

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s just a shed with a couple of stools and a little bar top. It gets you away from the norm,” he says. “It feels like you’ve gone out.”

Pubs in sheds, garages and rec rooms are not a new phenomenon. Andrew ‘Uncle Wilco’ Wilcox, who has run a Shed of the Year competition on his website since 2007, says he has had people entering pub sheds for the prize from the very start. “Pub sheds are one of the most popular categories for Shed of the Year.”

The last year, however, has seen a surge in popularity for the hobby. “The pandemic has brought pub sheds to the mainstream,” says Uncle Wilco, citing the large numbers of people who have been furloughed and therefore have plenty of time on their hands. “Alas, the pubs being closed, they need somewhere to go and enjoy themselves. Instead of just a place to have a few beers, people have during this time tried to create their perfect spaces.”

The numbers bear this out. Pub Sheds UK, just one of several groups for pub shed enthusiasts on Facebook, has seen its membership swell by over 6,000 since the first Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020. Scroll down the group’s discussion board and you’ll come across countless posts from new members asking for advice on everything from how to navigate planning rules to what makes the best insulation material. 

Andie Batchelor, a lift engineer from Watford, only discovered the group after he had finished his pub shed, The Batchelor’s Arms, but posts fairly regularly, answering other people’s questions as well as asking his own. 

“There’s a very nice feeling on that one,” he says, comparing it favourably to other Facebook pub shed groups he’s part of. “Very helpful people. The information for people who are building is invaluable really because there are so many people who’ve done it, and a lot of people who’ve made mistakes as well, so they can say, ‘Don’t do it like that’.”

Andie includes himself in the ranks of people who’ve made mistakes, by the way. No major mishaps but if he was doing it again he would insulate the roof better, he says. He didn’t go the whole hog with The Batchelor’s Arms because he liked the look of the ceiling as it was. In any case, it’s served him fine thus far. “If you can heat it up nicely it’s really not a problem.” 

The build was pretty straightforward. He bought and installed an 8’x10’ shed, insulated and soundproofed it and covered the walls with decorative boarding. Then came the fun part, filling it with all the bits and bobs of pub paraphernalia he’d accumulated over the couple of years since he started talking about building a pub in the first place. 

The Batchelor's Arms: Andie Batchelor

“I told people about it and they started buying me stuff and in the end I ended up with so much stuff and no pub to put it in, so I cracked on,” he says with a laugh. 

It took him two months to build in his spare time and cost somewhere in the region of £1,500, including all the decorative elements, which range from horse brasses and etched mirrors to a neon ‘BAR’ sign and overhead hanging glassware storage. 

His inspiration for the design, Andie says, was “basically the pubs that I was brought up in, in the 1980s. We were always out as a family and we’d always end up at a pub somewhere, by my granddad’s orders normally. 

“That was the kind of old school pub that I wanted to create.”

This nostalgia-tinged design route is popular with other ‘sheddies’ (including Mark and Daniel, who based The Royal Sovereign on pubs they’ve visited over the years on regular family daytrips to nearby Whitby) but a quick scroll through the photos posted on Pub Sheds UK reveals a dazzling array of aesthetic themes. Trashy sports bars, traditional Irish bars, elegant cocktail lounges and après-ski lodges all feature, home to high-spec kit including arcade games consoles, karaoke machines and woodburning stoves, plus a huge amount of your standard pub memorabilia. 

Take Suzie Hamilton, a social worker from County Antrim, for example, who decided to build a pub shed around Christmas time with the extra cash her partner was making after taking a second job at a Covid-19 testing centre. 

“A friend has one which we’ve always loved,” she explains. They are planning a dart board, TV and record player in their AC/DC and Northern Ireland football-themed pub shed, which will hopefully be finished by the end of February. 

“We will hopefully be using it every weekend and can’t wait to have family and friends over when we are allowed,” she says. 

The challenge, says Andie Batchelor, is knowing when to stop with the décor. “When I was building it, I was always buying stuff. I’ve managed to be a bit more disciplined now because I am running out of room pretty quick. I’ve got nowhere to put things. I mean there’s so much stuff you could buy.”

The challenge is knowing when to stop with the décor

Prices have jumped since the pandemic, he says. “Anything we used to pick up two a penny, now on eBay is like three or four times the price. It is mad.”

While most sheddies treat their pubs as a DIY project – perhaps calling on family and friends for assistance with tricky elements like electrics – throwing money at the problem is always an option. 

Mark Myers, a lumberjack from British Columbia, who originally hails from London, never planned to start a side line in pub building. He first built a pub in his house when the owner of his local, who was renovating, asked him one evening if he knew anyone that wanted the old bar. 

Mark went in the next morning with a chainsaw, took the bar home and installed it under the deck of the house he shared with his wife at the time, building a traditional British pub around it. 

“People loved it,” recalls Mark. “They said, ‘You should do this for a living.’ So that’s how it started.”

Mark has since completed around 30 what he calls ‘home pubs’ in and around where he lives on Vancouver Island, charging up to CA$10,000 for the most elaborate designs. Working with Sandy Pollard, his partner of 19 years, his preference is to create a “basic pub” and encourages his clients – mostly friends, neighbours and colleagues who visit one of Mark’s pubs and decide they want one too – to “collect little artefacts or pieces that they scout around and find”. 

Mark’s process is an instinctive one: “I’ll go in and look at the space. Some spaces are easy, other spaces will be very difficult. That’s why you’ve got to see it.” 

Sandy, who does the painting, upholstery and general helping out, chimes in: “Mark doesn’t do any blueprints or plans. He gets the bar in there first and everything is about seeing where things balance out.”

Mark goes on: “It’s a build but the way I do it, it’s more of an art form. You’re painting a picture.”

Taking inspiration from the sort of pubs Mark remembers visiting as he was growing up in the UK, the pair source their materials from antique shops and garage sales, as well as upcycling furniture such as church pews and using off-cuts of timber that Mark comes across in his work as a lumberjack. 

“When I see it, I know it’s going to work. There’s endless amounts of stuff you come across,” says Mark. 

While his designs vary – the basement of Mark and Sandy’s home, for example, is set up as a show room to offer prospective clients a taste of three distinct British pubs – Mark’s ultimate aim is to transport his clients “back in time”.

“That’s what you got to capture,” he says. “People don’t want modern stuff when they go to the pub. All the houses now, everything’s white, but they can still have a little area in that white house where they walk in and it’s a separate space. You’re escaping.”

The essence of that escape, of course, is down not just to the surroundings but what you get up to when you’re there. And, given that it’s your own pub, that can be whatever you want. 

“The nice thing about it is that you can play your own music, have the beer you like,” says Sandy.

Ah yes, the beer. Mark is often asked to put in a hand pump and beer fridge combination in the pubs he builds, a set up that’s easy and inexpensive to install, he says. With the craft brewery scene in British Columbia booming just like the one here, there are plenty of places to pick up delicious ales to enjoy in the comfort of your own home pub.

Hand pumps are a popular choice among pub sheddies in this country too, proving less hassle than pressurised systems. For ale-lover Mark Coates, installing one was a no brainer, though it took the cost of The Royal Sovereign from under £1,000 to more like £1,500. 

“It makes a massive difference,” he says. “It’s an investment that keeps on giving.”

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